Should We Be Eating Invasive Species?

Eating Invasive Species image source: mjwinoz [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

EcoBeat Staff- There’s a new eating craze in town, and it’s aimed at eliminating invasive fish species. In an effort to find innovative (and delicious) solutions, chefs and concerned foodies alike have begun to embrace eating lionfish and Asian carp, to name a few. Both species are well known for pushing out, eating or killing indigenous fish and are wreaking serious ecological havoc. As an example, lionfish are a venomous species that eat over 40 types of other fish, frequently juvenile inhabitants of coral reefs. They were originally native to the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean, but were released into the Caribbean as demand for the fish to serve as brightly colored pets or aquarium additions grew. This has caused a threat to biodiversity, which is exacerbated by the lack of natural predators outside of their indigenous habitat.

Chefs like Ned Bell are finding ways to serve them on the plate. The idea is to decrease populations of invasive fish by incorporating them into menus, thereby helping to re-balance the fragile ecosystem. Not everyone is buying into the proposed solution. Some consumers have a difficult time swallowing the poisonous, unattractive and ill-named swimmers (they are not poisonous once the spines are removed). Marketing efforts by famous chefs have helped eaters understand the tastiness and well-meaning effort behind the new trend. The Wide Net Project works with local buyers to increase demand for the blue catfish, which currently inundates the Chesapeake Bay. Blue catfish are relatively easy to catch and offer little chance of by-catch. Lionfish on the other hand, are extremely labor intensive to capture. Food & Wine writer, Paul Greenberg recently wrote a guide on how to catch a lion fish- a process that was frustrating to say the least.

With high levels of difficulty for catching many of these species, either a better system should be developed that does not negate the purpose of eating invasive by harming the ecosystem, or we need to start eating. Every day that is. James Morris of NOAA estimates that we would have to eat 27% of a total population per month every year in order to get these overwhelming numbers back into control. That’s a lot of fish to eat, a lot of fish to figure out how to catch especially in the case of the lionfish and we still need to convince people to eat them. I have a feeling that task will not be as easy of a sell as tuna. The Nature Conservancy’s Laura Huffman points out that eating invasive species is no silver bullet. Perhaps it’s not even a bullet at all when it comes to lionfish.

In addition to the logistical issues of catching invasive fish, which will likely keep it prohibitively expensive, how will increased demand be handled once consumers bite? While developing solutions that exist within the fragile web of ocean ecosystems, it is important to look at the long-term implications of demand.

We humans have a habit of becoming attached to what we eat. Take the tuna for instance. Tuna was a relatively abundant fish (key word is “was”) that became a favorite on the food stage for its health benefits. The more we were sold on the benefits, the more tuna became an integral part of the American diet. But as we did so, tuna supplies became depleted to the point where some estimate that the fish could vanish from the plate in just a generation. That’s what consumer demand backed by a multi-billion dollar industry does, and we have a hard time breaking the cycle. (See also: the tragedy of the commons)

Now perhaps that point will never be reached for any of the invasive fish we seek to put on the menu. But with the amount that needs to be eaten to make an impact, if we succeed, success is likely to be coupled with increased demand and consumer by-in. This could however, stay as a well-placed, well-meaning gourmet item. Or, it could not. If it does reach a certain point in demand, then we hit a bit of a cross road. Do we tell people that sorry, the lionfish or catfish are all gone, and we’ve won the fight? Or do we meet the demand by finding new ways to produce? Just some food for thought.


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